Iran's retaliation will likely be limited, but mistakes could lead to war, experts say

Israeli forces were on high alert Friday in anticipation of a retaliatory attack by Iran or its proxies, which analysts and officials warned could spur an Israeli reaction and potentially spark a broader conflict in the region.

Iran is expected to launch an attack as early as this weekend in retaliation for an April 1 airstrike in which warplanes struck an Iranian embassy building in Damascus, killing three generals and other commanders, officials said Friday Americans and Iranians.

Military analysts have said that neither Israel nor Iran appear interested in provoking a full-blown war involving the United States, but that a miscalculation on either side's red lines could result in an escalation of hostilities.

An Iranian response was inevitable given the high profile of one of the generals killed in Syria, Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a top commander of Iran's Quds Force, analysts said.

“For every wise actor, there comes a time when the cost-benefit calculation changes and all strategies are reset,” said Mahdi Mohammadi, chief adviser to Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, speaker of the Iranian parliament. “For Iran that moment was the attack on Damascus.”

Israel expects Iran to strike in a way that allows it to save face but is measured enough not to spark an even more ferocious counterattack, analysts say. The Iranians “don't want an all-out war,” said Amos Gilead, a retired Israeli general. “Then they could attack targets that would allow them to claim they had achieved a great victory.”

Iran and Israel maintain no direct, formal communication channels, which greatly increases the potential for each side to misinterpret the other's intentions, said Danny Citrinowicz, a former Israeli military intelligence officer.

U.S. analysts and intelligence officials believe Iran will strike numerous targets inside Israel in the coming days, said three U.S. officials who requested anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.

Where these attacks will be directed, where they will be launched from, who might carry them out, and the damage they are expected to inflict remain secret to all but the highest levels of Iran's government and military.

But Iran's response to these questions will determine the size and scope of Israel's response, said Citrinowicz, a researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

The country's leaders most likely hope to use their strike to restore some semblance of deterrence following the killing of General Zahedi in Syria, he said. (Israel has not publicly taken responsibility for that attack, but several Israeli officials confirmed the country's involvement to the New York Times.)

Such an Iranian response, Citrinowicz said, could mean an attack from Iranian territory rather than through its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq.

Israel warned that an attack launched from inside Iran against targets inside Israel would be considered an escalation requiring a response.

Daniel Hagari, an Israeli military spokesman, said Thursday that such an attack would be “clear evidence of Iran's intentions to escalate the escalation in the Middle East and stop hiding behind proxies.”

Last week, in anticipation of an Iranian attack, the Israeli army announced that additional reserve units had been called up to strengthen Israel's air defense system and that combat soldiers awaiting discharge had been ordered to remain deployed.

If Iran were to launch an attack from its territory, Citrinowicz said, Israeli air defenses would detect drones or cruise missiles long before they reached their targets, giving Israeli forces a chance to destroy them.

A more daunting scenario, he said, would be surface-to-surface ballistic missiles, which would arrive within minutes. Israel has developed some defenses – such as the Arrow system – to intercept long-range missiles.

“If we could intercept most of what comes in, that would be excellent — it would moderate our need to respond offensively,” Citrinowicz said.

Farnaz Fassihi contributed to the reporting.

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